Within two years of graduating from the acting programme at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (in 2009), Pushpendra Singh was keen on experimenting with various forms of storytelling. And he found his own unique way of doing that. He would retell popular Indian folk stories through video performances, to an intimate gathering of friends. The 20-minute video sessions, titled Ek Akahani ka Supatra, would bring alive the characters in those folk tales, with Singh assuming the role of a sutradhar.
“This is where I learnt of Vijaydan Detha and his Rajasthani folk stories. He had a very poetic style of writing prose and his description of the landscapes and characters was vivid,” says Singh, whose debut feature film Lajwanti – The Honour Keeper, is based on Detha’s popular Rajasthani folk tale, titled Lajwanti. Detha’s work has also influenced the likes of Mani Kaul, Amol Palekar, Habib Tanvir and Prakash Jha.
The 62-minute film had its world premiere last year at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was acclaimed for its cinematography and narrative approach. In India, it was screened at the Kolkata Film festival last year, and was screened in Delhi on Saturday as part of the Habitat Film Festival. Lajwanti was one of the short stories in Detha’s Bataan ri Phulwari (Garden of Tales), a 14-volume collection of folk traditions from Rajasthan.
The story is about a village woman in the remote region of Thar, who prefers to remain behind the veil and is always seeped in sorrow. One day, a man with an obsession for pigeons crosses her path and awakens Lajwanti’s curiosity in opening up to the world and embracing freedom. “The story had a unique cinematic quality about it, and I thought I could translate it into a film,” says the 36-year-old, who hails from the Chambal area on the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border.
Singh has interpreted the folk tale in his own way. The village well becomes an important character in the film, as Singh feels that “it is a collector of stories, bringing the women from the village closer”. Even Lajwanti’s character (played by newcomer Sanghmitra Hitaishi) has been given more depth and freedom. Besides writing the script, Singh essays the character of the man with the pigeons.
While writing the script, he referred to his own mother’s life and his childhood spent studying at a boarding school in Pilani. “The dreams of Lajwanti were not fully explored in Detha’s folk tale. I wanted her to dream freely. So I thought about how my mother would react given that even she comes from a community where women live under the veil,” explains Singh, who completed shooting last year, but was unable to show Detha the film, since he passed away in 2013.
The story is dotted with references to Rajasthani miniature paintings, like the bani-thani painting from the Kishengarh school. Singh has even cast local artistes and actors, like Suguna Devi from the Kalbeliya community. “Any film about Rajasthan should integrate the local community,” says Singh, who is simultaneously working on another version of the folk tale. For now, he is looking to secure a theatrical release for the film.